Travel certainly can be a strain on the wallet, but it doesn’t have to be. To us, travel is not a vacation. On a vacation, people may splurge and pamper because that one week might be the only time to spend money on traveling for the year. This is perfectly valid. Go for it! However, since we choose to travel long-term, we cannot afford --nor are we interested in -- resorts or all-inclusive packages.
Spending little does not equate to experiencing less. In fact, some of the most memorable activities cost little or are entirely free: Couchsurfing, riding a scooter, hiking to a magnificent waterfall, fishing with a Thai family in the mountains, taking a public ferry shared with high school students through the Kerala backwaters, for example. Still, some of the higher cost sights are well worth the price tag. For instance, Angkor Wat and the Battambang circus in Siem Reap, Cambodia cost more than our usual activities, but are totally justified.
Using the Trabee Pocket app and Google Sheets, we carefully, but very easily, recorded every expenditure. Including our flight from Korea to India, transportation, HelpX membership, accommodation, food, sightseeing, gifts, postcards, and some medical expenses, we spent less than $500 USD each per month traveling full-time. That’s less than rent alone in most U.S. cities. Not included in this calculation is our traveler’s insurance (with World Nomads, it was $330 for six months. Lianne filed a claim successfully for her stolen phone) and our separate flights home.
Disclaimer: We are fortunate to be in a position that allows us to live this lifestyle. We are in good health, are native English speakers, do not have crippling debt, and come from a country with a strong passport and strong currency. We are forever grateful for this privilege and try to be conscious of how we represent ourselves abroad. We sincerely hope others can have similar opportunities to travel abroad, hence why we are reaching out with some of our budget travel advice!
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: CouchSurfing
Breakfast: Walked around Phuoc’s neighborhood comprised of narrow alleyways and homes that also serve as people’s shops. Phuoc helped us order food and we took it to a local coffee shop.
Bahn Mi egg sandwich for Adam: $0.44
Two coffees and bowls of noodles for Lianne and Phuoc: $3.21
Transportation: Round- trip public buses to and from Cu Chi Tunnels for three. $4.02
Lunch: Three filling com chay vegetarian meals at local stall. Included rice, a hodge podge of sauteed vegetables, tofu, and clear soup. $2.68
Entrance Fee to Cu Chi Tunnels: Adam paid the inflated foreigner fee, but with her Vietnamese hat, mask, and Phuoc’s hoodie, Lianne got away with the the local fee as Phuoc did all the talking. Phuoc used to be a tour guide, so he enthusiastically taught us about the Cu Chi tunnels, all while practicing his already excellent English. $4.91 for three people.
Sugarcane juice: Adam and Phuoc indulged in an antioxidant-rich treat from the side of the road. Also comes with entertainment: the contraption used to make the juice is mesmerizing! $0.89
Dinner: Phuoc’s mother kindly prepared a meal for us! She made vegetables, tofu, eggplant, omelette, and exotic frog legs. Not for the faint hearted (Lianne). We contributed dessert: watermelon from a vendor near their house: $0.89
Fruit Shakes: Lianne was in the mood for a fruit shake, Adam wanted to meet people, and Phuoc was up for an adventure. So we wandered around the neighborhood. At that time of night, the streets were quiet, a rarity in Ho Chi Minh City. One little shop seemed open for business, though it was just a stand in front of someone’s open living room. And they sold fruit shakes! Two guys were in the living room hovering over plates of chicken. One spunky guy, who we learned to be Billy, was enthusiastic to see us and sprung to our service. He impressed us with his command of English and willingness to converse. We ended up chatting for a while and made plans to hang out the next day. Fruit shake, meeting people, and adventure - all our missions accomplished! $1.39
Total Daily Cost: $18.43. $9.22 each (including covering our CS host’s meals, admission, and transportation)
Read more about CouchSurfing with Phouc or our CouchSurfing guide
For a little over a week, we did a help exchange at an eco-resort near the beach. The deal was to do five hours of work on the organic farm in exchange for a very nice bungalow. We got to learn about farming practices such as making compost and planting peanuts, which we recently learned have been harvested and eaten! We spent $5 each per day for heaping amounts of scrumptious Thai food at the resort (also came with cooking classes as Lianne helped prepare meals). By noon, we were free to swim in the pool, take the bicycles to the beach, and hang out with the fellow volunteers from Switzerland and Spain. We also experienced a Buddhist celebration on the hill behind the resort.
Total Daily Cost: $5 USD. $2.50 each.
Read more about our experience volunteering at the eco resort and farm.
If you are interested in volunteering abroad, We recommend signing up with HelpX or WorkAway. However, proceed with caution when it comes to volunteer projects. You don't want to do more harm than good. We even had a negative experience volunteering in southern Thailand. So, we suggest reading the Volunteer Traveler's Handbook for practical advice and stories about combining your travels with ethical volunteering.
Breakfast: Vegetable omelet with bread. Included in guesthouse price. Lianne brews her own coffee with coffee beans grown in southern Laos.
Rent bicycles: Explored the city & surrounding countryside. Visited old bridge and temples, $4.92
Tour of Ock Pop Tok Living Craft Center: This Laotian social enterprise empowers women through and their traditional craft of weaving high-quality textiles. We learned about the intricate process of creating silk textiles and saw it in action! The women speedily weave rugs and use contraptions three times their size. Impressive! The Craft Center itself is just gorgeous and is right on the mighty Mekong River. Free
Lunch: Avocado sandwiches and fresh fruit shakes from Mrs. Mout, our favorite vendor whom we returned to daily. $4.92
English Conversation Class: Tutored some motivated young adults in English at Big Brother Mouse, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy by publishing and distributing books in rural areas, holding teacher trainings, booking parties, and literacy workshops. The center in Luang Prabang has English conversation sessions. We had a blast chatting with these students, helping them with homework, and to deciphering Justin Bieber lyrics they printed out, etc., all while learning about Laos culture from their perspective! Free.
Night Market: Strolled through the lengthy night market selling handicrafts, textiles, ceramics, coffee & tea, jewelry, etc. Many items are handmade by ethnic groups throughout the country. Got a leaf notebook with bamboo paper: $3.08
Dinner: Vegetarian buffet at night market and a Beer Lao: $3.70
Coconut pancakes from a street vendor: $0.61
Accommodation: Private room with shared bathroom, friendly staff, free water/tea, nice porch for drawing/reading/playing cards with guesthouse mates: $8.69
Total Daily Cost: $25.92. $12.96 each.
Read more about budget accommodation tips.
Note that we traveled through countries where the US dollar stretches the furthest. Fifteen dollars a day may not be feasible in western Europe or Australia, but you can apply the same principles to save money while not skimping on experiences.
Also try to keep in mind why the dollar is so strong in certain countries. What might be pocket change to us is a matter of going to bed hungry or not for someone else. In other words, it's not worth haggling over a dollar for a scarf with an eldery lady who weaved it.
We hope you found this helpful. Did you have big experiences on a tiny budget? Please share your best travel tips in the comments!